published Monday, March 4th, 2013

Jackson County weighs $1.2 million budget gap

Jackson County, Ala., commissioners are wrangling with a $1.2 million 2012-13 budget deficit that stems from previous years' deficits that were countered with reserve funds.

But that safety net is growing thin, officials said Friday.

Jackson County has had a budget deficit for at least the last two years, County Commission Chairman Matthew Hodges said.

There's no "cash deficit." Hodges said, "but obviously, if we continued this way, we would have had one next year if we didn't make some drastic cuts. That's why we're making the cuts now."

Unofficially, trimming proposals involving four departments -- courthouse maintenance, the commission office, the revenue office and the mapping and appraisal office -- account for at least "a few hundred thousand dollars in savings," he said.

Hodges said there should be at least $400,000 in cuts available in those four departments, and officials next will start looking to other departments.

Besides cuts, county departments are not hiring for new jobs and are not filling some vacant positions, he said. Hodges said he doesn't believe any full-time jobs will be lost, but some part-time salaries could present some savings.

Cuts present a challenge for officials.

"It is difficult for elected officials, department heads that are having to hold off on hiring right now," he said.

Officials said Jackson County hasn't had a property tax or sales tax increase in years -- maybe 12 or more years -- and improved government efficiency could hold off hikes into the future.

Hodges said a group is presenting ideas to commissioners at a work session tonight to save money through better energy efficiency in all the county's public facilities.

There'll be more budget discussion then, too, he said.

District 3 Commissioner Dennis Miller said the solution is more a recasting of expenditures across the various county departments than an overhaul.

"That's the most ready remedy we can look for," Miller said. "If this proves not to be enough, we'll have to look at it again."

He said commissioners plan to meet every Monday until they get costs under control.

Hodges is hopeful.

"As long as we can continue at the rate we've been going, we should be fine and we shouldn't have to eliminate any positions," he said.

He said the proposed round of cuts to the first four departments will go before the commission at its March 11 meeting.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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